Kane Klenko is an interesting fellow. Known for his titles such as Fuse and Flip Ships, his brand comes across as “quirky”. Proving Grounds is right in that pocket. This is a real-time gladiatorial bout where one player embodies a betrayed princess and the others never show up. That’s right, this is a table for one and a design specifically tailored towards solitaire play. Color me intrigued.
The story is a big part of this work. It’s such an integral element that the game arrives with a novella inside the box. The heroic journey of Maia Strongheart going from eager princess, to betrayed sister, to ferocious warrior is presented in 30 or so pages of solidly sculpted prose. There’s been a prevailing sentiment of “I came here to play a game, not read a book”, but I am actually into this.
The little story provides context and plants the seeds of investment that can tie your more closely to gameplay if so inclined. There is a definite stumble in spelling out the ending and describing Maia’s last stand, leaving the player to sort of pick up the narrative scraps by replaying a story that has already been written. It would have been much more effective to end the novella right before the combat ensued, allowing the soloist to write their own script and define the climax.
Even worse, our journey will not be nearly as tense, dramatic, or impactful as that which is written. The narrative described is one of high tempo with quick flashes of steel and a body count rolling over like a furious gas pump. The actual fight is a minority of the word count and it ends rather briskly. This is nothing like Proving Grounds the game.
The game is much more methodical and tempered. You align a random assortment of enemy cards in a circular formation around the depiction of your warrior princess. The intended perception is that they are coming at you from every angle and you must work to keep them at bay and ultimately free their soul from body.
You do this by playing Yahtzee, with a timer.
A large pool of six-sided dice is rolled and the timer starts. You have a minute to parse the results, sort the dice, and make any eligible re-rolls you choose. This is not a lot of time and that pressure element does create a sense of tension, mostly laying on the pressure as you struggle to quickly scan the dice and then scan the cards off to the side.
The challenge is that you can only re-roll dice showing the two or more of the same result. So if you roll a 1, a 3, and three 4s, you could re-roll the fours but not the other two. Singles become temporarily locked unless your re-roll of another number produces new doubles or triples or whatever.
This is very simple but it produces interesting conundrums. The numbers on the dice map to those different adversaries circling your position. If you really want to push that rough looking spear-man back on your six, well then you need to roll a bunch of sixes. Dice spent this way will cause a little wooden marker to hop down a track, ultimately defeating them. The catch is that the parameters shift as you progress along each warrior’s meter. Maybe first you need to assign 2+ dice, then 3+, then 3+ but one of the dice must be yellow or green.
All of this is pretty interesting at first. It becomes a speed variant of Yahtzee where you’re tactically assessing risk and half-picking your target numbers. You don’t have complete control and you will occasionally get into a bind and need to re-roll that fantastic grouping of fives in order to avoid the three singles you have floating out there. The problem with singles is that those specific antagonists will see their tracks regress. If they happen to make it all the way to the bottom they will inflict wounds, bringing you ever closer to defeat.
This will go on for about 20 minutes, a push and pull of driving some opponents an inch backward and allowing yet others to encroach an inch forward. The violence is slow and metered out in chunks with little actual bloodshed. It can feel as though the novella was written within the context of some other game from some other time.
Additionally, it wears a little thin after a half-dozen plays. The challenge and that nagging timer keep you initially primed, but the central puzzle is a repetitive engine sputtering along and waiting to give out.
Klenko realizes this of course and seeks to stem the bloodletting. The game includes several modules which change up the rules and present new tactical concerns. There are some really clever bits here such as the dragon die based on the wyrm found in the prescribed story. This sucker can be tossed with your regular pool, but you risk a chaos result which causes you to re-roll your entire set.
Of equal interest are chariots. These cards present active abilities which hamper and thwart your progress. You must decide when to appropriately deal with them in addition to the typical enemies. Most importantly they allow you to revisit those Ben Hur fantasies where you were galloping atop your bed as a child (there are advantages to gaming alone).
Some of the modules are admittedly second class. One such extension includes a facing element where Maia’s direction comes into play. Conceptually intriguing, the implementation results in what I’d describe as faff rather than compelling.
None of these miniature expansions take the game far enough away from its central repetitive engine. They don’t redefine the experience and merely add another half-dozen plays or so of entertaining challenge before the paint begins to wear off once again.
Perhaps this is enough? If you cycle through the modules and work your way up the ladder, you will get a healthy amount of time out of this box. It’s not going to stick with you for the long haul and you will likely need intermittent extended breaks, but you could do worse.
The greatest difficulty with this one is that really this kind of thing has been done better. For a small box solo experience, you’d be much better off tracking down Space Hulk: Death Angel. This little card game similarly retains a high difficulty, but it also is designed to feed entirely into organic narrative. You will fist-pump one minute and face-palm the next as your line of space marines flirt with victory before being shredded by claw.
Proving Grounds has little narrative because its mechanisms are stark and the result set is always identical. Defeating one enemy is the same as defeating the next, which offers no creative spark or kindling for your cognitive journey.
Furthermore, all of the rolling occurs off to the side of the board, distancing the systems of play from the few artistic expressions of its setting. When the process is literally divorced from the few immersive elements the narrative will largely exist outside of your experience. It’s an additional layer of abstraction with no benefit.
But what if you don’t care one whit for narrative? You’d be better off looking towards the excellent little gem Friday. That solitaire deck-builder is a juicy onion waiting to be peeled. It offers no tears nor acidic sting, rather it presents a compelling challenge with depth waiting to be teased.
And so I’m back there again. Like Fuse and Flip Ships, Proving Grounds is a somewhat enjoyable experience but it’s ultimately forgettable. I’ve found each of Klenko’s previous designs to garner my interest and present compelling concepts, but they never close it out and deliver wholesale.
It’s hard not to repeatedly circle back to this: Proving Grounds is a decent game. The issue with that statement is whether decent is enough. My job is to emphatically remind you that it’s not.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.
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